Features | From Pivot Magazine

How innovation is shaking up the intimates market

A legion of lingerie start-ups is remaking the market by choosing functionality over sex appeal

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Portrait of Knix founder Joanna GriffithsKnix founder Joanna Griffiths (Photography by Erin Leydon)

For decades, Victoria’s Secret was the queen of lingerie. But recently its jewel-encrusted crown has shown signs of wear. Between 2013 and 2018, its market share dropped from 31.7 per cent to 24 per cent. Last year, sales declined 8 per cent, the company’s stock fell 41 per cent and CEO Jan Singer stepped down. This year has been no better for the brand: more than 50 of its stores—roughly 4 per cent of its 1,143 locations—shuttered, and its parent company, L Brands, broke a nearly two-decade tradition when it announced that the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show would no longer air on network television. What precipitated the downfall? A consumer study by Wells Fargo offers an answer: 60 per cent of respondents said the brand felt “forced” or “fake.”

The appeal of Victoria’s Secret push-up bras and bedazzled thongs may be waning, but intimate apparel is booming. According to Zion Market Research, the revenue generated by the global lingerie market is expected to grow from US$38 billion in 2017 to US$59 billion in 2024. That growth is driven in part by a younger generation of women and girls who are rejecting the highly sexualized esthetic of established brands. They want undergarments that feel like they’re made for them, not for the gaze of a runway audience. 

A legion of startups has arrived to fight for the market share left behind by struggling legacy brands. Emerging digital-first undergarment companies like ThirdLove, Lively, Thinx, TomboyX and True&Co. are challenging the received wisdom about what women want. Online, where they sell their products directly to customers, they project a more down-to-earth image that emphasizes comfort and fit. They typically avoid the flamingo-pink, stiletto-heeled look favoured by Victoria’s Secret’s marketing materials in favour of neutral tones and naturalistic photography. You won’t find the word “panties” on any of their websites. 

Chief among these upstarts is Knix, which sells leak-proof underwear, bras, swimsuits and bodysuits. Former publicist Joanna Griffiths founded the Toronto-based company while at business school in France, inspired by something her mother, a doctor, told her: one in three women experiences leaks after giving birth, and their only option is adult diapers. Griffiths spent a year doing research, interviewing women and working on a prototype for leak-proof underwear, using odour-resistant quick-dry fabrics commonly found in outerwear and active wear. She won $20,000 in startup capital through a business venture competition, briefly partnered with Hudson’s Bay and then started selling directly to consumers after a successful crowdfunding campaign: the brand’s first bra raised more than $1.5 million—50 times its goal. Since then, Knix’s revenue has grown by 3,000 per cent, the company has expanded its workforce from three people to 60 and it’s on track to deliver more than half a million orders in 2019. 

Knix and its competitors advocate a broad message of acceptance, body positivity and practicality. For Knix, that message extends to the company’s inventive marketing strategy, which echoes the approach of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign: actual customers—stretch marks, birthmarks, cellulite and all—model the products. (They’re compensated with cash, Knix apparel, or a combination of both.) More than 700 bodily diverse women have participated: “You can almost see women let go and exhale and just feel comfortable,” says Griffiths.

This strategy comes with risks. Unlike how it would appear in an airbrushed image featuring a professional model, a product might not look perfect on a regular person’s body. But that’s kind of the point. Rather than focus on appearance, these challenger brands want to address common irritations that good underwear can fix: leaks, constantly having to adjust your bra, thigh chafing, under-boob sweat, underwires digging into your skin. Griffiths relies on Knix customers to identify these common pain points, and she uses their feedback when developing products, like the brand’s new leak-proof maternity bra.

Through its email lists and social media channels, Knix reaches more than two million people. Griffiths wants to make the brand a vehicle for conversations that have long been taboo. The company’s blog, The Lift, features interviews, essays and videos on topics ranging from sleep hygiene to periods to mindfulness. Last year, after Griffiths had a miscarriage, she launched a campaign centred around fertility. In a video posted to the brand’s Instagram account and website, Griffiths and 50 of her customers share their stories, hopes and dreams about having children—or not. 

“It’s every single founder’s responsibility to not just make money but to do good in the world,” Griffiths says. “We have too many problems to tackle. And brands are so much more than just producers of physical products now.”